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Levin, Ben. (2008)  How to Change 5000 Schools. A Practical and Positive Approach for Leading Change at Every Level. Cambridge, MA:  Harvard Education Press

Pp. x + 256         ISBN 978-1934742082

Reviewed by  Ruth Rees
Queen’s University, Canada

July 17, 2009

Ben Levin, writing as a researcher and practitioner (twice deputy minister of Ontario Education), wrote this book, weaving successful practices (his and others) and theories of change and its implementation, all toward schools acquiring sustained change and improvement.  This book is clearly grounded in Levin’s experiences in Manitoba and Ontario, Canada, where he was a senior government official, and in his research with Fullan  (2007) and with Leithwood (2005) and other change writers.  While Levin directs this book both to practitioners and researchers in the field of Education, his theme is to encourage and sustain others, and others in Ontario Education, to follow his suggestions for improving education for the students in their school systems.  He believes that students have much more potential than either schools or society perceive.  His writing is clear, well structured, and aimed, with its readability, I believe, more toward those actually working within school systems:  at the school and board levels.  He uses theory to justify his practical suggestions, yet does not diminish the challenges of the tasks he outlines.  Change is slow, often discouraging.  Yet he reminds us to remain focused, positive, and realistic in our strategies for sustained school improvement.  It is important to balance realism and optimism, he says.

Chapter one acts as an introduction or preface for the book, outlining the chapters to follow.  Chapter two is Dr. Levin’s ‘personal odyssey’ as both a practitioner and academic, describing some of his experiences and challenges that he addresses in this book which could also be named as his model ‘of action for school improvement’ (p. 8). 


Ben Levin

The essence of the book begins in chapter three with a reminder of how important education is.  His view is that “the goal for public schools should be real and meaningful gains, across a wide range of desirable student outcomes, with greater equity in those outcomes, in a way that builds and supports positive morale among all those involved in schools and also supports high levels of public confidence in public education” (p. 62).  He spends the remainder of the book describing how to reach this goal.

Chapter four, like most books on change, begins with his reasons as to why improved and sustained change is so difficult to bring about.  The (only three) reasons he gives are:  “one, they are the wrong changes; two, they do not give adequate attention to political dynamics; and three, they are not effectively implemented” (p. 42).  He says that it is imperative “to build the capacity of a school system [in order] to create real change” (p. 82, my italics) and to do so in a deliberate and systematic manner.  He then introduces Elmore’s (2004) and Fullan’s (2008) explanations of capacity-building, arguing that people at the different levels (teachers, principals, support staff, students) must be given opportunities to learn new behaviours and to learn and to apply new and more effective practices.  This notion of ‘skill’ is balanced in the next chapter with ‘will:’ people must be motivated to want to improve and to do what is necessary for the improvement to occur and be sustained.

In chapter five, Levin describes what he considers to be the most important aspects for improvement:  strengthening both teach and learning practices, and relationships between the students and educators in a school or system.   Yet he believes that this is not sufficient for system-wide change; rather, all aspects, to be discussed in other chapters, are necessary ingredients, reinforcing the interdependency of the points he outlines.   On page 92, Levin lists his nine essential practices for improved outcomes, drawing from different researchers.  He then describes each of those practices, starting with high expectations for all students.  This chapter I would consider as the most important and, at the same time, the most complex.  Each of these nine interdependent practices themselves contains several aspects, all of which must be taken into consideration.  But, as Levin contends in chapter six, the ‘right’ educational reform must be supported by certain political and organizational strategies.  Next he outlines four key organizational supports for change:  people associated with the educational system who are both engaged and committed; effective collective (not individual) practices to continue to improve their educational practices; aligned, coherent, and supportive system policies and practices, accompanied by effective communication; and appropriate allocation of resources.  As before, each aspect has several components.  Two-way, clear, non-threatening communications, he says, is essential for staff understanding, commitment and morale.  He ends that chapter with his mantra:  “The work of school improvement requires both a strong focus on a few key activities and sufficient attention to the broader context and demands to enable everyone to have and maintain that focus” (p. 138, emphasis in original).  Having only a vision is not enough; it must be balanced with a supportive infrastructure.

Chapter seven discusses the importance of building public confidence in public education, from all stakeholders (parents, community, and general public).  From experience, Levin knows only too well that public education can only survive with such support.  Yet, Levin contends, many of our changes have failed because either the change itself is not supported by the public or the converse holds: ineffective policies did have public support.  Levin describes who constitutes ‘the public,’ (one example of which is groups concerned about public education) and reminds educators that we are in driver’s seat:  we should, he says, provide multiple criteria to assess the success of our enterprise and raise our concerns in public forums.  Again, Levin underscores the importance of accurate, balanced communications with and in the media.  This chapter is longest in the book.  Why?  I think it’s because we educators are too busy with the internal aspects of the organization/system and hence need the most help in raising our awareness in this aspect.

Implementing sustained improvement could not be possible without a leader. Accordingly, chapters eight and nine focus on leadership for improvement and how to do this despite the competing urgencies of running a school or school board and dealing with the external political environment.  After reviewing others’ lists of what leaders should do, Levin provides his own list of seven “practicalities that all leaders need to manage if they are to lead improvement in student outcomes” (p. 177).  Each is clearly delineated, complete with supporting research.  These suggestions reinforce some of Levin’s ideas which he presented earlier in the book.  Interestingly, point two is “building a strong team,” not the in-vogue but poorly defined distributed or shared leadership, he says.  As with the other chapters, this too contains several recommendations, one of which is respecting each other’s contribution.  This connects with another suggestion, suggestion three, that of “creating and supporting the right culture.”   As before, these suggestions are not independent, but rather interdependent.  Levin contends, and several times, that all his recommendations must be addressed, although all do not require the same amount of attention. Another of these seven points, point four, is the issue of creating a legacy of leaders, “recruiting, developing, and retaining leaders” (p. 177).  He insists that much effort has gone into recruitment; and too little into retention.  The penultimate point is the need to manage the political pressures external to the organization/school/school board.  Some of the groups he identifies are parents, unions, and other interest groups.  While leaders struggle to resolve conflicts, Levin reminds leaders to be positive, focus on the goal or end state, and allow for debate, dialogue, and sustained communication.    This leads into his final point, “maintaining the focus on teaching and learning.”   Many of his recommendations are long-established time management strategies, strategies which are easily articulated but hard to implement by the harried leaders of today’s educational organizations.

Chapter ten sums up each of these chapters and main recommendations.  Levin acknowledges that change is challenging and sustained change even more so.  He presents us with some assumptions we should not make (I’m puzzled as to why he thought these necessary for inclusion), specifying four points that should be carried out by educational systems simultaneously:

  • Focus on a few key student outcomes that matter most and are most understandably for the public and for educators.
  • Put effort into building capacity for improvement (skill).
  • Build motivation (will) by taking a positive approach.
  • Work to increase public and political support for an effective, thoughtful, and sustained program of improvement.   (pp. 234-235)

I like his final section.  For the most part, they are not new to us.  Levin  ends with five suggestions for what one person/leader can do.   He recognizes, I believe, the importance of having everyone in a position of educational leadership in the system working for similar ends.  His final words of advice are:

  • Pick a few issues for focus—that gives the most result for least effort.
  • Build a team and allies; look after yourself and other people.
  • Think long- and short-term.
  • Pay attention to public confidence and the political environment.
  • Stay positive and optimistic. (pp. 237-238)

This well-written book will prove helpful for educational leaders concerned about improving student outcomes.  The examples are relevant; the literature is current.  Many points/recommendations are provided for the practitioner.     For easier reference, I would recommend summary tables of the recommendations and their embedded suggestions.  Moreover, I suggest the formatting, in future editions, be made consistently similar throughout.  In this first edition, some of the recommendations are numerically listed; some are just listed in point or paragraph form.  Regardless of these minor issues, I prophesize that Levin’s book will be used by educational practitioners for many years to come.

References

Elmore, R. (2004). School reform from the inside out:  Policy, practice, and performance.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard Education Press.

Fullan, M. (2007).  The new meaning of education change, 4th ed. New York:  Teachers College Press.

Fullan, M. (2008).  The six secrets of change. San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.

Leithwood, K. & Levin, B. (2005).  Assessing leadership effects on student learning; Selected challenges for research and program evaluation.  In C. Miskel  & W. Hoy (Eds.), Educational leadership and reform,( pp. 53-76).  Charlotte, NC:  Information Age Publishing. 

About the Reviewer

Ruth Rees, PhD
Professor of Education
Queen’s University
Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Dr. Ruth Rees is Professor and Registrar in the Faculty of Education at Queen's University in Kingston, Canada. She is a research-practitioner, carrying out research in educational leadership in order to contribute to more effective leadership practices. She teaches in both the BEd and graduate programs in Education, and is the Director of the Principals' Qualifications Program that is provincially mandated for those educators whose goal is to be a vice-principal or principal in a public school in Ontario. She is also working with three Institutes of Education in the People's Republic of China to assist in the development of leaders of schools there.

Copyright is retained by the first or sole author, who grants right of first publication to the Education Review.

Editors: Gene V Glass, Gustavo Fischman, Melissa Cast-Brede

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